In the context of a parenting dispute, the purpose of a court-ordered evaluation is to provide the judge with the information they need to make a decision regarding parenting rights and responsibilities (also called legal and physical custody).
A child custody evaluation is designed to assess the relationships among all the family members, the parenting abilities of each parent/caretaker, the psychological health of each family member, and the family dynamics (including any patterns of domestic violence or child abuse).
The evaluation typically requires separate, often multiple interviews of each parent and each child; observations of each parent with the children; and a home visit at each parental home, usually with the children present. The interviews commonly cover personal, marital, and parenting history.
The evaluator will also talk to relevant professionals with whom the parents and/or children have been involved, as well as to a selection of other people whom the parents name. To do this, Dr. Rohrbaugh will need written permission in the form of releases of information. When necessary, parents may need to give permission to allow Dr. Rohrbaugh to review criminal or psychiatric records, although Dr. Rohrbaugh can also motion the Court for permission to do so. These steps are designed to help Dr. Rohrbaugh define and answer the relevant questions in each case in preparation for making recommendations for the court's consideration.
Psychological testing is rarely needed in child custody evaluations. If Dr. Rohrbaugh does think that psychological testing is necessary in a given case, she will obtain a court order requiring it and then refer both parties to a psychologist who specializes in doing psychological testing for such purposes. The psychological testing expert would provide Dr. Rohrbaugh with a summary of the testing, and Dr. Rohrbaugh would then include the testing results as one source of data for the report of the current child custody evaluation.
A thorough, comprehensive evaluation for a family with one or two children usually requires 30-70 hours of Dr. Rohrbaugh's time. Evaluations require additional time for families with more than two children or with special issues such as relocation; parent/child estrangement; or allegations of substance abuse, child sexual abuse, or domestic violence.
Brief, focused evaluations examine only one or two key issues, and take 10-20 hours to complete.
The Department of Children and Families or other state agencies sometimes request an evaluation to assess parent/child relationships or a parent's ability to care for their children.
The assessment methods in these evaluations are essentially the same as for all comprehensive child custody evaluations, with special attention to the risk factors for child abuse and neglect.
Although the prevailing legal standard nationwide in care and protection matters is the best interests of the child, just as in child custody matters, many attorneys and social service agencies want care and protection evaluations to address parental fitness. This means that the evaluator must focus on the parent's ability to take care of the child, not on what parenting arrangement or living situation would be best for the child. A parent who is found to be fit has a legal right to have custody of their child even if another living arrangement would be better for the child.
In a parenting evaluation the emphasis is on
parental fitness, while in a bonding
evaluation the focus is on the relationships between the
parents and the children rather than on the parental abilities